Diversity in 2012 YA Bestsellers, Part 4: Covers and Conclusions

By Malinda Lo

In Parts 1, 2, and 3, I examined diversity in 2012 YA bestsellers in individual titles and series. Today I’m looking at representation on covers, and then drawing some conclusions.

Among all of the titles surveyed, only two had covers that clearly conveyed the diversity of its content:

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  1. Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare — This is the only YA bestselling novel to unarguably feature a character of color on the cover.
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — The diverse content is clearly telegraphed on this book cover by the title and the illustration.

Two books feature debatably diverse covers:

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  1. Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles — The boy on the cover looks like he’s of color to me (in the book he’s Latino), but I can easily see someone arguing that he passes as a white guy with a tan.
  2. Fated by Alyson Noel — The dream catcher/feather earring is a well-known and often clichéd indicator of American Indian mythology. The girl could be Latina; or at least, she’s not unambiguously white.

Conclusions

In Part 2, I noted that 17 individual titles on the PW list, across all formats, included diverse main characters. That list included 109 individual YA titles overall. What proportion of the YA titles on the PW bestseller list, across all formats, were diverse?

There are two ways to count this, both of them imperfect.

1. If you count every title on the list individually, meaning every single Pretty Little Liars book is counted separately, then it turns out that 17 out of 109 titles is 15.6%.

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The problem with this percentage is that it does count every single title individually. So for example, there are 10 Pretty Little Liars books on the PW lists, but there is only one Emily Fields; it’s not like there are 10 different minority characters.

2. If you condense the series so that those 10 Pretty Little Liars books only count as 1 series, and do the same with all the other series on the PW list, that adds up to 53 total YA properties (I know, I had to come up with a word). Those 53 include both standalone books such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and series such as The Infernal Devices. After condensing the list, you arrive at 7 diverse properties out of 53, or 13.2%:

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Now, I have been working on these spreadsheets for weeks, and I lost all my data at one point. Luckily my Mac allowed me to revert to previous editions, and I think I corrected my mistakes. However, I was the only person working on this. I didn’t realize what a giant project this would turn out to be. So I could have made mistakes — I probably did! Nevertheless, I don’t think I’m too far off with that 13.2%.

And after spending way too much of my time scrutinizing these numbers, I’ve come to the following conclusions:

  • These days, it’s totally normal to have diversity in the supporting cast of a bestselling YA series. While I personally am tired of having minorities relegated to best friend status, I do think this is a good step toward increasing diversity among main characters.
  • Cultural appropriation remains a real problem, particularly for representations of American Indians. There are three books or book series on the PW lists that feature American Indian characters and cultures: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, and Alyson Noel’s Fated. These books vary widely on the scale of cultural appropriation vs. cultural authenticity, and yet they all do contribute to increasing visibility for American Indians in YA literature. Whether or not that visibility is positive is a different issue (one that I’m not going to delve into here because it is too huge).
  • I was pleasantly surprised to see that Pretty Little Liars has made a very comfortable home for itself on those lists, because I’m often asked whether having LGBT main characters is a problem. I know that the B is not the same as the L, G or (especially) T, but still: I’m thrilled to see a bestselling series with a queer girl lead selling so well.

TL;DR: There’s more diversity in the PW lists than I initially thought there would be, but some of that diversity is problematic. Does this sound like a mixed bag to you? It sounds like that to me, too. What did you think about this series of posts? Feel free to share your responses with us, or if you have questions about my methodology etc., please ask. I’ll post some of your thoughts over the next couple weeks as they come in.